“It’s not stealing honey. We beekeepers call it robbing honey,” says Jeff Harris as he opens a lid on one of his hives to an insistent sound of about 50,000 honey bees.
It’s the sound of wings beating 11,400 times per minute. It’s a sound that joins the sound of hundreds of bees darting furiously around his flowering garden of impossible colors and variety in Sacramento’s River Park neighborhood. This is a task of all five senses.
It’s important to remain unafraid, so I say: “Oh, they know I’m their friend.”
Harris regards me through our respective netting like I’m crazy. “They’re not,” he says. “They only live six weeks, and they can smell fear.”
A colony is a complex society of queens, drones and workers that responds as a single organism to its greater needs. It’s an organism must maintain equilibrium.
As vital as water and sun, the value of honeybees to agriculture can’t be overstated. But I’m here to focus on the process of harvesting their honey. I’d feel guilty, except each hive needs to have humans extract honey, to make more room so half of the colony won’t leave to create another home.
Harris, who is also a city councilman, lights a small fire in a pot. Smoke makes the bees think there’s danger, so they fill their tiny bellies with honey, which makes them more docile. He lifts out each frame of the hive with his bare hands. With a soft brush, he gently wipes off bees and places ten frames each in three empty boxes.
We leave the bees to their tasks. Three thousand bee trips yield one teaspoon of honey. Workers fly 55,000 miles and visit two million flowers to produce one pound of honey, and consume eight pounds of nectar to make one pound of wax. They fly a three-mile radius at 15 miles per hour. A queen will lay one egg per minute around the clock, 200,000 eggs a year for five years.
Harris plugs in an electric hot knife and draws it across the sealed honeycomb to release honey. Hot wax and honey falls in rolls into a bowl. The smell, more honey than burnt, is so glorious that I wish I could start each day with it.
I lift a finger full of sticky warm wax and honey to my tongue. This is as good a honey gets, a sensation that takes us back to childhood. Placing two honey heavy frames into an extractor, Harris cranks a handle until each drop of honey is expelled by centrifugal force, until the device is so full the crank can’t move. He places a five-gallon bucket under a spigot. Honey flows and flows.
Stephanie Taylor is a Sacramento artist. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.